Think Globally, Act: Turning Garbage into Gardens

As I traversed the country last week, a few things became quite evident about middle America: The plain states love Jesus, hate any meal not smothered in bacon, and despite the thousands of wind turbines that have gone up in … Read More

By / September 3, 2008

As I traversed the country last week, a few things became quite evident about middle America: The plain states love Jesus, hate any meal not smothered in bacon, and despite the thousands of wind turbines that have gone up in the past few years, some folks still don’t quite have a grasp on the green movement. I pulled up to a motel somewhere west of St. Louis around 4 a.m., and despite my grogginess, I couldn’t help but notice the sticker on the door advertising something called “EcoRooms.”  The pamphlet at the front desk stated “Appealing to today’s environmentally conscious guest, these rooms are designed to be environmentally friendly – using less energy and fewer disposable items.” Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see where leaving the lights on and the air-conditioning set to “arctic” fits into “using less energy.”  Judging from the number of cars in the parking lot, it was conceivable that both had been running for hours, if not days.  These blunders, while inexcusable, were probably the fault of one or two individuals, and likely didn’t warrant an open letter blasting America’s Best Inn & Suites as Greenwashers.  The Styrofoam cups on the dresser and in the breakfast buffet, however, were a completely different matter. I mean, Styrofoam?  How is this product still in existence?  Even decades before the green movement took off, weren’t we all pretty clear on the fact that Styrofoam is about as environmentally friendly as the Exxon Valdez?   Granted, these products are cheap; you can still order 1000 Styrofoam cups for around $59.95 (plus 5% of your soul).  Most establishments have moved towards recyclable paper or plastic cups, which are priced comparably to Styrofoam; but then you have to wonder what percent of recyclable goods actually end up in a recycling bin.  For as little as $.03 more per cup, companies like SunTerra, The Green Office, NatureWorks, Fabri-Kal (makers of GreenWare)  and VegWare can provide zero impact disposable products. If you live in a few select places like Boulder or San Francisco, none of this comes as any surprise, as biodegradable disposables are in every coffee shop and most eateries around town, most of which either do onsite composting or at very least separate compostables for recycling.  For years environmentalists have been pushing consumers to recycle plastic, but the US still lags behind most other modernized countries (and many not so modern) in terms of recycling ratios.  Moreover, while recycling certainly slows the production of petroleum based plastics, the Foodservice Packaging Institute estimates that we still use 39 billion items disposable cutlery, most of which are manufactured from petroleum.  This new wave of disposable goods offers an economic, eco-friendly alternative to conventional goods. The brilliance behind compostable products is the circular nature of their life cycle.  These products are made from plant matter, often forged with corn or potato oil, a process which reduces the use of fossil fuels by over 95%.  Once the product is used and discarded, it is composted, ultimately ending up as fertilizer to aid in the growth of crops.  As such, Ecotainers, or GreenWare, as they are often referred to (though both names are trademarked… we’ll see which one sticks and becomes the Band-Aid of the market), provide environmental solutions on the front end, by being organically produced, and the back end through composting.  The end result is a 200% reduction in greenhouse gases compared to conventional petroleum based products.  Even if an Ecotainer is thrown away rather than composted, it still has less than half the environmental footprint of a discarded plastic cup, and many multiples less than Styrofoam.   There are still plenty of companies that still use Styrofoam, so on the surface it may seem a bit vindictive to single out this one particular motel west of St. Louis.  However, as I mentioned in my last article, companies all over the country are spending millions of dollars on legitimate greening practices in order to market themselves as environmentally friendly.  This is exactly why the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System exists: to provide a third party verification system for ensuring that consumers who make purchases based on green practices are not going to end up with a stack of Styrofoam cups or a hotel room as cold as Dick Cheney’s heart.   If you live in the Northeast and have a tendency to imbibe coffee, it’s unlikely that you’ve been able to make it this far without tossing a Styrofoam Dunkin Donuts coffee cup in the trash.  With 7,900 locations worldwide (though sometimes it seems like they have that many in Boston alone), Dunkin Donuts is the second largest domestic retailer of coffee by the cup, selling approximately 2.7 million cups of coffee per day, and almost 1 billion per year.  If you purchase anything larger than a 10oz beverage you will receive it in a creatively decorated Styrofoam cup, which will happily inform you that “America Runs on Dunkin.” 

The cup fails to mention that this Styrofoam cup, along with about 2 million others like it, will end up in a landfill by the end of the week. Dunkin Donuts is by no means completely oblivious to the environmental movement, announcing in May that they will break ground on their first LEED certified restaurant in St. Petersburg, FL.  This is a major step for this organization, and one can only hope that it is the first of many steps.  A move to Ecotainers would not be cheap (approximately $29 Million per year), but for a company on pace to break $6 Billion in sales this year (63% of which is coffee), such an investment is hardly out of the realm of possibilities.  Besides, if Americans are already willing to pay $3.75 for a Latte, who’s to say we won’t pay an extra three cents for one of these.

Want to compost at home?  Check out my handy guide.  

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